Bert Thomas, a 1969 inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, was the first person to swim across the Juan de Fuca Strait, the frigid 29K (18-mile) channel that separates Vancouver Island in Canada from the state of Washington, USA.
Time Magazine's July 1955 issue gave a colorful account of Bert's swim which was described by authoritative historian Conrad Wennerberg as 'one of the toughest swims in the world.'
Juan de Fuca Strait, a frigid, 18-mile channel that separates Vancouver Island from the state of Washington, challenges distance swimmers with the same fierce fascination that Mount Everest arouses in mountaineers. Since last April, when the Victoria Times offered $1,000 to the first swimmer to cross the strait, four men and three women have tried for the prize, have been defeated by the channel's fierce tides and unrelenting chop. Last week a barrel-shaped Tacoma logger named Bert Thomas, 29, slipped into the water at Port Angeles, Wash., swam through the night, and eleven hours, 17 minutes and 30 seconds later emerged cold and grinning on the Canadian shore.
Thomas, ex-U.S. Marine and onetime frogman, trained last winter by swimming in Puget Sound, downed gallons of milk and devoured pounds of steak and potatoes to build up his weight to a fat-padded 270 Ibs. Four times—like all of his fellow challengers—he tried the straits by swimming from Canada to the U.S., and gave up miles from shore.
Last week Thomas changed his strategy, decided to try the crossing the other way. He timed his 6:50 p.m. take-off from Port Angeles with a gentle evening ebb tide, put nearly four miles of water behind him in two hours. For once, the wind lay still and a gentle swell replaced the usual nasty chop. The water temperature was 48°. While a schooner scouted a mile ahead for friendly currents, the cruiser King Bacardi stayed with him. Once each hour, as Thomas rested, his handlers fed him orange juice through a plastic tube, gave him cigarettes to puff.
As the flotilla crossed the midstream boundary line into Canada, Victoria householders turned on their porch lights as beacons. By 110'clock Thomas was safely past Race Rocks, usually a tidal trap but now beneficently calm. At 1 o'clock he shouted: "It sure is cold." A few minutes later: "How'm I doin'? I want the truth now." Replied a voice from the King Bacardi: "You've caught 1½ miles in the last 20 minutes." A little later Thomas called out: "You fellas got nothing to worry about. Sit back and relax."
As dawn broke, Thomas could see crowds gathering along the Victoria shoreline. With an exuberant sprint, he closed the last 25 yards, staggered up the beach into the arms of his wife. Then, after a cup of coffee, he was whisked off to Victoria for a municipal welcome. Later, with nearly $3,000 in prize money and bonuses in his pocket, he expanded on his plans: "I'd like to try the Golden Gate swim and after that the Gibraltar strait. If I don't get too old, I'd like to break every swimming record there is."